Playing the game: Irish playboy builds a global online empire

4 Jun 2009

Dylan Collins, the entrepreneur who three years ago, at the age of 26, sold his Dublin-based technology company, DemonWare, to the world’s biggest computer game firm, Activision, for $15m, is focusing his energies on helping Ireland to emerge as a player in the online games publishing business.

Until now, Ireland’s success in the computer-games industry has been via firms such as Havok (bought by Intel for $110m) and DemonWare which make technology for games publishers.  But Collins represents a new breed: entrepreneurs who are publishing their own video games.

His company, Jolt Online Gaming – which employs 25 people in Dublin, Belfast, Germany and Bulgaria – in recent weeks received international acclaim for striking a deal with Hugh Heffner’s Playboy empire to bring out an online game called Playboy Manager that allows players to manage the careers of the magazine’s hottest models.

The game’s release has earned Jolt coverage in prestigious titles such as the The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, San José’s Mercury News and TechCrunch.

Playboy Manager, which will go on release this summer, is a browser-based game, meaning it can be played on any computer anywhere rather than relying on an expensive games console. The majority of the game’s revenues will come from micro-payments as well as advertising.

Playboy Manager is the latest of a number of global game releases from the Dublin-based games publisher, including Legends of Zork as part of a partnership with Activision.

The deal with Playboy represents a fight back by the Heffner empire, which is feeling the economic pinch. The Playboy Manager game could be seen as a way for Playboy to mitigate declining sales and connect with an online audience.

Collins, who spoke while relaxing in the sunshine in a café off Dawson Street, says he had an opportunity to meet with Playboy management and explain his idea. “They really loved it and we struck a deal to develop and publish their flagship title online. It fit with their 18–34 demographic.”

According to Collins, the original investors in DemonWare, which include the AIB Seed Capital Fund and Enterprise Ireland, have also invested in Jolt, while global investors are looking at the company.

“We got to a point where we had a track record and people take pretty seriously what we present them with. We have some interesting expressions of interest from bigger international finance groups, again based on what we’ve done.

“The acquisition of DemonWare by Activision taught us a lot about the business we are in. We were privileged enough to work with the guys when they were planning their internet strategy and seeing at a nuts and bolts level how they worked.”

Collins says the micropayments and advertising model on Playboy Manager and Legends of Zork are also attracting interest from media publishers. “Media companies are looking at online gaming more and more because they realise its another way for consumers to consume content and doesn’t cannibalise their traditional business.”

At 29, Collins is a consummate entrepreneur who began his first business, a mobile software company, while at Trinity College Dublin. His success with DemonWare and the growing reputation of Jolt shows Ireland can develop its own digital industries.

“There’s no excuse for this country not to be a successful technology start-up hub. Gaming is just one segment and it is becoming cheaper to get a business off the ground.

“With Jolt, for example, virtually everything we do is done through the internet cloud using hosting services. All business processes, including analytics, project management and customer support, are in the cloud. You can scale up pretty quickly for very little money if you know what you are doing.”

Collins argues passionately about why Ireland needs to be providing greater support for its young technology entrepreneurs. “If Ireland wants to achieve this knowledge economy it should be prepared to invest at low seed levels.

“If Enterprise Ireland was to make 200 or 300 grants available every year at €50,000 a pop for entrepreneurs to build an online product and go to market. For €50,000 you can get three or four guys in a room for three or four months and they will build a product and go to market. If we had 300 of these groups every year, you would create a digital ecosystem.

“In the US, groups like Y Combinator are funding businesses at low levels and, in Europe, The Founders Fund is doing this.

“There are venture capitalists in the US waiting to bet on young businesses. It’s remarkable this hasn’t happened in Ireland yet.

“We should be supporting our young right now, instead of scaring them to death.

“For €10m a year, you could have 200 companies a year and 5pc of them could emerge Ireland’s answer to Microsoft or Nokia,” says Collins.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Dylan Collins, CEO, Jolt Online Gaming